Were Your Parents Poor Models of Marriage?

My parents had a terrible marriage.

This is not news, since their divorce is public record. But recently, I’ve been contemplating once again the example I grew up with. Let’s just say they didn’t set me up well to address issues in my own marriage.

You can probably relate. Some of you had functional families (yes, they exist!), with flaws of course. Some of you had problematic families that didn’t provide the support you should have received. And some of you had awful childhoods with emotional pain that bruised your tender heart in ways few people understand.

Regardless of your history, when you get married, you hope to create a healthy, intimate relationship with your spouse. But how has your family background affected your ability to achieve that worthy goal?

When you get married, you hope to create a healthy, intimate relationship with your spouse. But how has your family background affected your ability to achieve that worthy goal? via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

What Did They Teach?

What did your parents tell you about marriage? About the opposite sex? About sexual intimacy? Can you still hear their words in your head? Many of us can. Others experienced deafening silence, their parents sharing little if anything, especially when it came to sex.

Your parents may have promoted bad ideas about marriage generally, or one’s ability to change, or how children will impact your marital happiness. Or just the opposite sex altogether.

Truly, if I had a dime for every wife who’d told me her mother said negative things about men, I’d be basking in the French Riviera right now with an umbrellaed drink in hand. Mind you, I believe we should caution our daughters about the small minority of men who harass and abuse. But I’m talking about general statements like: “Men are perverts.” “All men look at porn.” “If you don’t give him sex, he’ll get it somewhere else.” “Men are just big children.” What awful messages that set a wife up for believing the worst about her husband!

Even so, I often feel sympathy for those who taught their children poorly, because they may not have known better. Many well-meaning women, trying to fulfill their Titus 2:3-5 duty, instructed younger women to control sexual impulses before marriage and have duty sex after marriage, “because he needs it.” They weren’t trying to screw us up—they simply didn’t understand God’s design for sex!

But whether they were motivated by selfishness, resentment, or just plain ignorance, we may have received bad teaching from our parents. Mull over what you learned from them and ask, “What do I need to challenge and correct?”

“Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.” ~ Mark Twain

What Example Did They Set?

Philosopher Edmund Burke said, “Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other,” while Novelist James Baldwin said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

Your parents were imperfect people, so no matter how great they were, they didn’t model everything perfectly. But some of you had bad examples, perhaps because they were struggling so much with life themselves. And some of you had little to no example of marriage, with divorce and/or absentee parents.

Even if you decide firmly that you will break that mold, be honest: Didn’t you pick up some of their dysfunction? We can find ourselves behaving in ways they did—even when we disliked it so much ourselves or swore we wouldn’t be like that. We can also create problems by overreacting in our own marriage in an effort to avoid repeating our parents’ mistakes.

For example, my mother took care of my dad like Edith Bunker took care of Archie, constantly attending to his needs and wants. Because I did not want their marriage, early on in my marriage, I would get prickly about my husband asking me to perform basic courtesies like bringing him a drink from the kitchen while I was in there anyway. For much too long, I allowed my fear of following in my parents’ footsteps prevent me from speaking my husband’s love language (acts of service) and showing kindness to my beloved.

Ask yourself what example your parent(s) set and how that has benefited or hurt your marriage. If you didn’t have a good example from your parents on something, including sex intimacy, find another one. That’s part of why I’m here—to show that healthy, holy, and sizzling hot sexual intimacy can be found, even if you’ve failed in the past.

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

What Change Do You Need to Make?

It’s one thing to know where the issues lie and another to change what needs to be changed. Recently, I’ve been going through my father’s old files, and it’s been disheartening to see how much information he collected about how to have a good relationship … that he didn’t put into practice for his own marriage.

Head knowledge is not heart knowledge. And even heart knowledge is not the same as commitment and active practice.

Head knowledge is not heart knowledge. And even heart knowledge is not the same as commitment and active practice. #marriage via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

You may need to simply think through what teaching and modeling you received from your parents and adjust your attitudes. You may need to communicate with your spouse about your pasts and how those have contributed to current tension or conflict. You may need to actively adopt new practices that come habits over time, replacing the old, unproductive ways. You may need to seek professional help in the form of marriage therapy, personal counseling, or trauma treatment.

Your journey is unique. But all lasting change requires humility, resolve, and perseverance. If you don’t have those right now, pray for them, and then take your first steps.

What Example Are You Setting?

We married folks exert a lot of influence with our words and actions. We train our children with what we say and do as well. What example do they see in us?

If you panicked at that thought, don’t worry. It doesn’t have to be perfect! You can do this.

You don’t need to pretend everything’s okay or share sentiments you don’t believe; kids eventually see through pretenses anyway. But you can share foundational truths, admit where you’ve messed up and what you’ve learned, and demonstrate how to make difficult but worthwhile change.

Also let your kids see demonstrations of love toward your spouse. Be affectionate; tell stories about how you met, dated, vacationed, etc. (yes, even when they roll their eyes), reaffirm your marital commitment in front of them.

To equip you with better messages about marriage and sex, here are a few worthwhile reads:

Again, you can do this.

Not only did I have a poor model of marriage from my parents, my husband and I were poor models of marriage when our kids were young. However, neither of my sons remembers that time. They’ve had too many alternate experiences of parents who argue sometimes but love each other and are fully committed to the marriage.

Over time, we re-balanced the scales and changed the image of marriage for our sons. My older son even told me recently that, particularly in light of what he’s learned about our childhood pasts, his dad and I were “incredible parents.”

As we improve our own marriage and provide a positive model for our kids, we can take heart in this truth:

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

23 thoughts on “Were Your Parents Poor Models of Marriage?”

  1. Excellent! Even more reason, for men at least, to read romance. The power of example.

    “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.“

      1. I agree 100% that the Song of Songs/Solomon is the “Best romance to read.” However, for readers of J’s blog born before 1969, some of us grew up with parents for whom the Song had little meaning (born in 1939, I belong to the “Born 30 years too soon” group). Here’s why: I was taught in Christian colleges (I’ve graduated from two, BTW) that the Song’s only message is as a type of the relationship between Christ and his church. For example, famous commentator Matthew Henry observed that “When you read the Song of Solomon, forget you have a body.” Henry’s opinion prevailed from the 5th century (Augustine & Jerome) until after Woodstock in 1969, which gave the world the sexual revolution. Not coincidentally, that’s about when Christian writers such as Tim LaHaye began to find sex in the Song and tell Christians to take another look.

        My parents were indeed “good” parents. They never fought; they disciplined us, took us to church (Dad was a deacon and SS superintendent, involved in several extra-church ministries, as well), read the Bible to us, prayed with us, were faithful to each other, ad infinitum. But they did NOT teach us about sex. Only after my father died, when I was 28, married four years, did my mother finally open her mouth about sex. She told me that she’d not had an orgasm until she was married five years–didn’t know that women were supposed to–but that she did now miss those times in bed “now that your father’s in heaven.” (Mother’s there also, BTW). I suspect she was telling me how to treat my wife!

        Many of today’s older Christian couples still hold to this old belief, shared by Bible teachers and well-known commentators, both Protestant and Catholic, that the Song has nothing to say about sex. I know of couples much younger than I who still believe this. Sad indeed.

        I did learn a bit about girls, and I’m so glad I took my father’s advice: That I should stay away from girls who’d had multiple partners, or whose families were known for extra-marital sexual activity. I was a virgin, and I married one. We both were excited about our wedding night and had a great time in bed–and many times since. I do believe that the Lord smiles when Christian couples get naked and make love!

        1. Yes, for many years SoS was taught as being strictly an allegory. Interestingly enough, even if one agreed with that approach—and I do not—it still begs the question: why would sexual imagery be used if God didn’t think sex in marriage was good and beautiful and intimate?

          I love that your parents did their best and prepared you as they knew how. (As I said in the post, they likely couldn’t have taught what they didn’t know to teach either.) That seems to have prepared you well for a good marriage and intimacy. I would say this: I’m glad my husband did not follow that advice to “stay away from girls who’d had multiple partners,” or he wouldn’t have married me. Repentance, redemption, and healing are more than possible in Christ!

          1. My answer: No. (See Matthew 22:23-30 and Luke 20:34-36.) You can read more in this Crosswalk.com article on Marriage in Heaven.

            Mind you, I believe that I will have a special affinity for my husband in heaven, with beautiful memories of our time together, but we won’t be married. Our relationship will be different, but still delightful in the presence of our Heavenly Father.

            (I have some wonderful readers who are Latter Day Saints and have a different perspective on this point. But I’m an evangelical Protestant and disagree with their interpretation.)

          2. so i would like to be a little more specific in my question: will there be exclusivity in these relationships in eternity? and in the millennium?

            thank you very much J!☺

          3. No. I don’t believe any of the familial relationships—wife, mom, daughter, sister—etc. will hold in Heaven. We will have a special connection based on memory of our earthly lives, but in Heaven we’ll just be us in relation to the Father. At the same time, I’m not arrogant enough to think I actually know what will happen in Heaven. Most of the language about it in the Bible seems symbolic more than descriptive of the actual experience. I just trust God to figure it out, and I’ll roll with whatever happens. I concern myself about the life I’m leading now, and He can prepare the next one for me (John 14:3).

          4. “Repentance, redemption, and healing are more than possible in Christ!” Exactly right. But there are so many who carry a load of guilt & shame into marriage–and often it’s for having been abused, rather than for their own chosen premarital behavior. Dr. Irwin Lutzer tells of the young woman who could (or would) not believe that God had forgiven her abortion, though “many times” she’d confessed, on the basis of I John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

            One summer I and a young man who is now a successful pastor were team-teaching the Song of Solomon to an adult SS class. We were following a very conservative denominational SS lesson manual, and were both careful to stay within the guidelines provided, so as not to offend older members of the class. I did mention the word “sex,” and an elderly shouted, “sex, sex, sex–I never ever want to hear that word again.” She stormed out of the church.

            Neither I nor the other teacher was able to figure out what I’d said wrong. My take is that there was something in this dear lady’s past that she’d never dealt with. So . . . not everyone is ready to accept the S of S. Only this week I read that the Keswick movement, which is still echoing in the halls of several well-known Christian colleges, taught that the S of S was only an allegory. J, you’ve made a great point that it “begs the question: why would sexual imagery be used if God didn’t think sex in marriage was good and beautiful and intimate?”

  2. I love this J! My parents are good in some areas, but were silent about sex and don’t model intimacy well. I found your blog because I was a virgin fiancee and trying to find everything I could about sex from biblical perspective since I was told nothing (not even “the talk”) growing up. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the work you do for marriages and intimacy! I’ve now been married 7yrs and your writing has had a huge influence on the awesome intimacy I share with my husband!

  3. Wise words as always. I will add that it’s important to understand your spouse’s parents’ marriage and how it’s different from your own parents’.

    I really relate to your illustration of getting prickly when your husband asked for a small act of service. That’s happened to my wife and me many times. My wife’s parents also had an Archie-Edith relationship of him demanding and her serving. We could see that and of course vowed to break the cycle and be different. But she had a huge build-up of resentment toward male authority that still gets easily triggered many years later, despite a lot of counselling. Meanwhile, my own parents’ marriage was one of generosity and mutual sacrifice. So I was completely unequipped to deal with her resistance and pushback and kept walking into the same problem over and over. Even though we thought we had talked it all through before marriage.

    And, to relate it back to the main subject of your blog, these differences have really affected us in the bedroom as well, because we have such different orientations toward giving and generosity.

    1. I relate to your story in that middle paragraph. In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that I nearly snapped off my son’s head for saying something about me doing the cooking while I was visiting his place, because I thought he meant “because you’re the woman” when he really only meant “you usually did the cooking.” Duh, J. That’s true. #MomFail At least I caught myself and apologized, and then we laughed about that later. I’ll catch on next time before I say the stupid thing! (crossed fingers)

  4. Good post! As someone who came from a household with no examples (single parent) and the parent was completely unwilling to discuss sex, or anything even my own body etc it was also hard to know what healthy marriages looked like. When we got married my in-laws seemed to have a really good marriage. Years later it became clear it was functional and not awful but not really healthy. So, sometimes even if you know you don’t have a good example it can be hard to know where to find them. You, and other female Christian bloggers have been really helpful.

  5. Two disconnected parents who were not the best role models. Never talked about sex, never discussed how to handle conflict, never talked about how to manage money or a budget, modeled how to come home from work, and watch TV until bed. Worked in the yard and in the house on Saturdays and that was about it. Guess I learned a lot more about what not to do from my parents.

    1. It’s sad how many people have lived disappointing lives and never took steps to live a better one. Kudos to you for making an effort to embrace a better life for yourself and your family!

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  7. As thirty-two year married man, I appreciate your posts. This post had such a strong undercurrent of “you can live in a blessed marriage and it doesn’t have to be like it was for them”. Then, you gave specific examples that challenged me deeply. Thank you.

  8. Growing up I thought my family was normal. Years later I realized how dysfunctional it was. I never heard my parents say one kind word to each other. They were married for over 40 years, until my Dad passed. I never saw them ride in a car together. They did not share a bedroom, which I thought was normal. They did not display any affection to each other, in words or actions . . . Or to any of us kids.
    It took me until my kids were in their twenties to realize that I missed out on years of being affectionate to them, and telling them that I love them.

      1. Thanks!
        What really makes me sad is how I carried it (the lack of affection) over to my kids without even thinking about it. I feel like I need to try to explain it all some day to them.

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